Journalists Held in Libya: The Dangerous Blurry Lines of Conflict
Four journalists, including two Americans, were captured this week by pro-Gaddafi forces. Babak Dehghanpisheh reports they’re expected to be freed, but the battlefield is increasingly blurred and risky.
Covering the conflict in Libya seems to get dicier each day. On Tuesday afternoon, four journalists were nabbed by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi a few miles outside the oil town of Brega. The group includes two Americans: Clare Morgana Gillis, a freelancer who has done work for The Atlantic and USA Today, as well as James Foley, a freelance reporter for GlobalPost. The other two are Spanish photographer Manu Brabo and Anton Hammerl, a South African photographer.
The group was stopped by pro-Gaddafi troops at an intersection near the site of recent heavy fighting, according to a report by The Atlantic.
After the journalists were detained, their driver was released and the car was reportedly destroyed by an RPG. There has been no official confirmation of the group’s whereabouts but Libyan government sources reportedly told Western journalists in Tripoli on Thursday night that they do have the missing reporters in custody and will release them, according to a report by GlobalPost.
The detention of this group comes only a few weeks after four New York Times were captured by Gaddafi loyalists in the midst of heavy fighting in the town of Ajdabiya. The Times’ reporters described repeated beatings and harsh treatment at the hands of their captors.
Two reporters from Agence France Presse, as well as a photographer from Getty Images, were also captured near Ajdabiya a few days after the Times reporters and later released in Tripoli.
And an Al Jazeera cameraman, Ali Hassan al Jaber, was also ambushed and killed by gunmen just outside Benghazi in the same week.
Since the United Nations passed a resolution to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya in late March, Gaddafi loyalists have quickly shifted tactics. Tanks and heavy armor have been replaced by pickup trucks and private cars on the battlefield. Many government loyalists are dressing in civilian clothes and some have even dressed up as rebel fighters to sow chaos and confusion among opposition forces. The area where the journalists were grabbed on Tuesday is disputed territory which the rebels and government forces have fought over again and again. It would be nearly impossible to tell one group of fighters in makeshift gun trucks apart from another on the desert highway.
In some cases, the rebel fighters themselves can hardly tell the difference. Last Friday, one group of rebel fighters unknowingly ran into pro-Gaddafi militiamen dressed in civilian clothes outside the town of Brega, according to Fekri Gassar, 31, a rebel fighter familiar with the incident. The first indication of trouble came when one miltiaman at the checkpoint asked, “Do you support Gaddafi?” A shootout ensued which left four of the Gaddafi loyalists and one rebel fighter dead.
This muddling of the battle lines has also been a contributing factor to two NATO friendly fire strikes that have left 18 rebels dead in the past week alone. The NATO strike on Wednesday hit a group of rebel tanks, a weapon which has rarely been used by the opposition.
As the conflict between the rebels and the Gaddafi loyalists seems to be headed toward a protracted stalemate, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to figure out who’s shooting at whom on the battlefield. And that places reporters in a much more dangerous position while trying to cover the story.
Babak Dehghanpisheh is Newsweek's Beirut bureau chief. He's been covering the Middle East for Newsweek since 2001.